Catching murderers armed only with a pencil

SKULDUGGERY: Norman Kirtlan with one of the skulls he uses for his forensic art work.
SKULDUGGERY: Norman Kirtlan with one of the skulls he uses for his forensic art work.
Have your say

NORMAN Kirtlan is a master in the art of bagging murderers and rapists worldwide – thanks to his sketching talents.

Indeed, the quick-on-the-draw former Wearside police inspector has turned crime scene investigation into an art form as one of just a handful of UK forensic artists.

FORENSIC ARTIST: Norman Kirthan at work.

FORENSIC ARTIST: Norman Kirthan at work.

“My pictures may never hang in the Royal Academy, but they have helped to bring dozens of criminals to justice – including five murderers and eight rapists,” he said.

“You are always dealing with someone’s son, someone’s mother. If you play a part in bringing a killer to justice, it is worth the personal struggle you sometimes have.”

Washington-born Norman, a former Bede School pupil, received his first lessons in drawing from his grandfather and great-grandfather – who were both classical artists.

He later studied the subject at Warwick University, but believed his arty days were over after selling a much-loved oil painting to buy a pair of police boots in 1974.

In 1979, however – five years after joining Northumbria Police – a crime occurred in Washington Village which required both his artistic flair and law enforcement skills.

“A chap witnessed a man breaking into his home. Unfortunately the thief fled the scene without capture – but not before a good description was obtained,” said Norman.

“Later, sitting with a seasoned old detective who was writing a long statement describing the burglar, an image popped into my head and I quickly sketched it.

“My detective colleague took a look at my drawing of the suspect and immediately put a name to the burglar. An hour later we had both him and the stolen property!”

Norman’s artistic skills were called into action yet again in 1988 – when a teenage girl was brutally raped in South Shields.

“Her description of the attacker – front teeth missing, hair hanging over his face and mouth hanging open – exposed the limitations of photofit kits,” recalls Norman.

“So a colleague asked me to produce a sketch using the victim’s description instead. An arrest was made within hours and the rapist later jailed for four years.

“From then on, I was in a formal position of police forensic artist, balancing this with my own police duties. I must have done more than 500 sketches over the years.”

Sunderland criminals caught by drawings

Norman’s work has taken him from bloody crime scenes to chilly morgues and the homes of witnesses worldwide – including incidents across Europe and America.

But he is no stranger, either, to readers of the Sunderland Echo – as his forensic sketches of wanted murders, rapists and villains have appeared on our pages for over 25 years.

“Echo readers have been directly responsible for making identifications from the sketches, helping police to clear up three murders and numerous rapes,” said Norman.

Indeed, back in 1986 when a serial rapist was terrorising Sunderland, readers responded to a sketch drawn by Norman by naming and shaming the wanted man immediately.

“The chap I sketched had long scruffy hair, a gap in his teeth and wore glasses but, when detectives called at his house, they were in for a shock,” said Norman.

“The man who answered the door had a shaved head, false teeth covering the gap and no specs. He claimed that he was nothing like the rapist, citing the drawing in the Echo.

“When an officer picked up the man’s bus pass from a table, however, it told a different story. There was a photo of our gap-toothed rapist. He got ten years for his heinous offences.”

Tracing the murderer of Ethel Dack, a blind 86-year-old Whitburn woman who died after being severely beaten in 1990, is another of Norman’s most high-profile successes.

And he also used his artistic skills to track down a rapist who struck in Roker during the 1990s, while another sketch led to the identification of a man who murdered for just 50p.

“The man broke into a care home and killed an elderly resident for just a few pence,” said Norman. “The matron was so traumatised, she couldn’t give a proper interview.

“But I carried out a cognitive interview with her and drew a young lad with curly hair and a striped top. It was circulated and a member of his family turned him in.”

Another success followed the rape of a 33-year-old woman in the city centre. Norman spent many hours with the traumatised victim, building up a likeness of the attacker.

“The sketch produced was shown to patrolling officers, two of whom had spotted a man closely resembling the likeness on the night after the attack,” recalls Norman.

“Although the man ran off, he was quickly caught by two female officers. DNA evidence proved he had indeed been the attacker and he was jailed for ten years. It never fails to amaze me how courageous victims are as they re-live traumatic events in order to provide details. We couldn’t do our jobs without their bravery.

“But some images are hard to get out of your head – especially when the victim of a serious crime works so bravely to help me produce them and no one is arrested for the offence.

“One case in particular stays with me – that of a teenage girl who was raped in Washington in the 1990s. I still feel so sorry for the victim, who can never obtain closure.”

A case involving the attempted abduction of a courageous eight-year-old girl in the 1980s also remains a vivid memory for Norman – although the outcome of her case was happier.

“A man broke into her Mill Hill home, snatched her from her bedroom and bundled her out into the street – where her screams drew the attention of an off-duty policeman,” he said.

“The officer’s shouts led to the would-be abductor fleeing the scene. I did a drawing of the crook and was amazed at the little girl’s composure – as well as her power of recall.

“She managed to describe everything about him – right down to the buttons on his jacket. The drawing hung in the police office but sadly, as the months went on, no arrest was made.

“Sometime later, however, a man was brought into the office on different charges and the duty sergeant recognised him from my drawing. The crook later received eight years in jail.”

A gruesome job to help the grieving

Norman’s skills have also proved vital in tracking down the identity of victims of drowning and other accidents – a gruesome and pain-staking task, but one he takes in his stride.

“When the body of a young woman was washed up on the beach near to Sunderland, I was called upon to examine her remains and construct a facial likeness,” he said.

“Following TV and press appeals the woman was identified as a suicide victim who had fallen to her death in Scotland. Her body had later been washed down the coast.

“It meant a lot to me that, after she was identified, her grieving family was reunited with her. They were able to give her a decent funeral, and lay her to rest in peace.”

Learn the tricks of a CSI on forensics course

Although Norman retired from the police in 2006, he still retains his interest in forensics – working on a freelance basis with French, Dutch and UK forensics teams.

He has also set up a forensic imaging firm on Wearside and, in the wake of the success of shows such as CSI, now gives lessons in forensic crime-cracking across the region too.

His next course – which starts at the Bangladeshi Centre in Tatham Street on Thursday night – offers would-be Wearside detectives the chance to become “CSI experts.”

“People really are fascinated by forensics,” said Norman, whose talent was recognised in a chief constable’s commendation. “This course is a chance to find out more.”

The course, which includes forensic psychology and other disciplines, will be run by forensic artist Norman Kirtlan – who has helped to catch criminals world-wide.

“People will have an opportunity to see what happens at a murder scene, and what clues the body gives up from the grave,” said retired police inspector Norman.

“Subjects such as rigor mortis and body temperature will be examined, to show how crime-fighters in real life can pinpoint the time that a victim died.”

Norman will also show students how to reconstruct a likeness from a decomposed corpse or a skeleton, using examples of cases that he has worked on over the years.

There will also be the chance to take on the role of detective – following a murder case from body discovery, through to suspect identification and cause of death.

“No qualifications are necessary, other than a healthy interest in all things forensic,” said Norman. “Due to the graphic contents, however, it is for adults only.

“People will certainly view murder cases in a very different light afterwards, and they will also be able to pick up the many procedural flaws in detective TV shows too!”

•The WEA course will commence at 6pm on Thursday, May 1 and run for six weeks. Contact 0747 337 3339 or 212 6100 for further details.